Legends of the Blessed Virgin – The Pilgrim of Our Lady of Hal

Legends of the Blessed Virgin, by Jacques-Albin-Simon Collin de Plancy“Faithful Virgin.”

When the messengers brought to the illustrious Saint Elizabeth of Hungary the sad intelligence of the death of her husband, Louis of Thuringia, at the moment he was about to embark at Otranto for the Holy Land, they presented to her four precious images of the Blessed Virgin. The good princess shared these treasures with her beloved daughter, Sophia of Thuringia, wife of Henry, the magnanimous Duke of Brabant, and one of them was sent to the village of Hal, near Brussels. This image was two feet high, carved in wood, darkened by age, but perfect and well carved. The Holy Virgin held her Divine Son on her right arm, and bore a lily in her left hand. It was placed, in 1267, in a beautiful chapel, since changed into a splendid church, which attracts such numbers of pilgrims; and the miracles which our Lady worked at this shrine were so celebrated, that in course of time the simple village of Hal became a large bustling town, encircled with walls and entered by great gates.

During the pains and trials with which the path of this life is so abundantly strewn, suffering hearts, whom the spirit of doubt has not withered, love to take refuge in such sanctuaries wherein the mercies of God are most abundantly dispensed. So many favours did our Lady of Hal show to her devout clients, that they, with grateful hearts, spread far abroad the fame of her wondrous power. Her praises formed the subject of conversation of a party of honest people of Epernay, in Champagne, on an evening of May, in the year of our Lord 1405. Europe, at that period, was neither prosperous nor happy. France, delivered into the hands of faction by the folly of Charles VI, and still infested by the English, seemed to hasten to its ruin. A pilgrim, one of the party, who had just arrived from Hal, recounted how he had passed through Hainault, and how that beautiful country, the noble inheritance of the unfortunate Jacqueline of Bavaria, was also the battle-field of two parties, who fought with fury. But in these times the people cared not much about politics; they were only interested in the material results of the schemes of the day, and spoke of them only as they were affected by them. They far preferred to the wiles of diplomacy, accounts of pilgrimages, and simple narratives of such consoling works as raised their hopes and excited their religious feelings. Thus did the good traveller obtain an attentive hearing while he set forth the history and miracles of our dear Lady of Hal. He recounted the most striking wonders which the sweet Virgin Mary had performed for those who loved her and her Divine Son; and terminated his recital, by describing the adventure of the falconer, whose history had been recently carved in stone in the Church of Hal; for in those days the people were instructed by works of art rather than by books. Thus did he relate it:

“Dearly do the nobles of Hainault love the sport of falconry, and richly would they pay for a well-trained falcon. Now, it unfortunately happened, that the falcon of a gentleman who lived near Hal, which was much prized by its master, flew away. The negligent or stupid falconer, trembled, with some reason, when his lord asked for the bird. He told him that it was lost; upon which the gentleman flew into a violent passion, and declared, that if he did not find the falcon in five weeks, he should pay for it with his head. This was very hard; but then, every lord possessed of a fortified castle exercised sovereign and almost despotic rights over his vassals. The five weeks passed in deep anguish, but no falcon appeared. The poor man had spent the time in searching everywhere, in tracking the woods, in wasting his breath in calls for the lost bird, but all in vain. At length he obtained a respite of another month: but this delay was of no avail. Sentence was then pronounced, and the wretched man, condemned to be hung, was led out to execution, where his eyes were bound by the charitable hangman, that the culprit might not see the preparations for his death.

The falconer, in deep distress, felt that his last hour had arrived, unless rescued from death by a superhuman power. He wept in silence. But suddenly he struck his forehead and reproached himself with having neglected the powerful assistance of the Help of Christians – our Blessed Lady of Hal. He slipped out of the hangman’s hands, knelt down and prayed with that fervour which ever accompanies the prayer of the dying man: and he prayed with confidence; so that in a few minutes was heard the tinkling of the little silver bells which are attached to falcons, and in two seconds afterwards, the bird itself alighted on the shoulder of the condemned.

“So runs the tale,” said the pilgrim. “The falconer was pardoned, and in gratitude for Her intervention, he caused, with the assistance of his friends, his figure with his eyes bandaged and the falcon on his shoulder to be carved in the Church of our Lady of Hal; and in commemoration of the same event, Charles the Bold gave a silver falcon to this church.”

The good pilgrim related many more favours obtained by the intercession of the Virgin Mary, and told how the illustrious Duke of Burgundy, Phillip the Hardy, insisted in his last illness on being carried in pilgrimage to our Lady of Hal, where he died on the 27th of April, in the year 1404.

Among the number of those who listened with eager attention to this narrative, was a native of Epernay, called John Sampenoy, a handsome young man twenty-eight years of age, very devout to the Blessed Virgin, and greatly esteemed by his fellow-citizens.

“I am to be married in two months,” said he, “and to prepare for the holy union, I will go and visit our Lady of Hal.”

The next day he set out after mass, having taken leave of his affianced, and received due instructions from a holy monk to avoid joining strangers on the road. This he faithfully promised to do. But as he was between Rheims and Laon, trudging alone at an easy pace, as men do who have a long distance to go, he was met by two men who seemed in a great hurry, and who, judging his object from his dress, asked whither he bent his steps.

“To our Lady of Hal,” he replied.

“Well,” said the others, “we are going to the same town, and it will be company for you if we walk by your side.”

The pilgrim dreamt not of evil coming from men on their way to our Lady’s shrine. His companions slackened their pace, and conducted themselves pretty orderly until they arrived at Avesnes; although it must be confessed that the good John Sampenoy thought them great babblers, and too fond of the cup for pious pilgrims. As they passed through the gate of Avesnes, the guard stationed there arrested them. Our pilgrim was surprised at being included in the arrest, the more so when he heard their names pronounced to be Nicholas Barrois and Peter Normand, two notorious highway robbers. He immediately accounted for his being in their company, declared himself to be John Sampenoy, and told them his birthplace, and the pious object of his journey. But his consternation was heightened by hearing the robbers, doubtless through love of doing harm, declare that he had spoken falsely, and that he was one of their gang; whereupon John was sent to prison with them.

Prisons are bad enough in our days, but they were much worse then. The two robbers rallied their unfortunate companion without any mercy, then fell asleep like men accustomed to many and various lodgings. John, however, could not close his eyes. The next day he beheld fully the terrible position in which he was placed. He was led outside the city to the gibbet which had been erected for the guilty robbers.

To everything he could say as to his innocence, the judges replied, that he must be more guilty than the others for persisting in denying what was charged against him. The good monk, however, who was called to prepare him for death, declared before God, that he believed him to be perfectly innocent.

“Holy Father,” replied the provost, “be assured he is a great scoundrel, and has even tried to deceive you. As the worst of the three, he shall be hung last.”

John Sampenoy wept bitterly. The two robbers, who knew they had no pardon or mercy to hope for, and determined to die like true brigands, demanded drink, ridiculed the religious who offered them the consolations of religion, and determined as far as they could to make the poor pilgrim share their fate. These villains then mounted the scaffold, and died like true sons of Satan as they were.

After they had been executed, John was made to mount the fatal platform. He conjured the assistants to believe that he was innocent and a true pilgrim of our Lady of Hal, and begged them to pray to her for his happy passage into eternity, as his only hope was in her. The monk then knelt, the people imitated him, and they sung the “Salve Regina,” and after John had been hung, slowly chanted the “De profundis.”

In an hour nearly all the people had dispersed, and John’s body gave no signs of life. Yet there lingered a few pious women near the scaffold, who believing John to be innocent, could not think that our Lady would abandon her pilgrim. They had observed that the body hung quietly and had not made the contortions which the others had done, but seemed suspended in the air by some invisible power.

At this moment a gentleman rode hastily into town. He was well known and much esteemed by all for his virtues and good deeds – he was Lord John de Selles. He sought the provost, and said, “I come to beg the life of the pilgrim, for whose innocence I pledge my word.”

“If he were innocent, you should have been here an hour sooner, for I cannot now grant you his life. His body you are welcome to,” was the reply.

Lord de Selles said nothing, but hurrying to the place of execution, had John’s body cut down, when, to the great amazement and joy of the people, he fell on his knees and thanked his liberator.

“It is not to me you ought to return your thanks,” said John de Selles, “but to the Lady who sent me here, and whom you will see at Hal. When there, say an Ave for me.”

Not only in Hainaut, but in Champagne, whither John Sampenoy returned to his wedding, is this history preserved among the people in all its details, which Justus Lipsius, the great and powerful writer of the sixteenth century, has recorded with the greatest faith in its truth, and in testimony of his own gratitude to our Blessed Lady, he offered a silver pen at her shrine.

We annex a few further details and anecdotes:

During the religious troubles, when “the beggars,” sacrilegious enemies of faith and art, pillaged churches, violated sanctuaries, and burnt images, Oliver Van der Tympel, their commander at Brussels, resolved one day to attempt an attack upon Hal. He approached the city on the night of the 10th July, 1580, with a troop of u beggars,” who vainly dreamt they should have an easy prey. But, says the legend, our Lady sleeps not; the citizens of Hal were aroused and ran to defend the ramparts. A man named Zuick mounted a ladder placed against the wall, boasting that “in a quarter of an hour he would cut off the nose of the little woman of Hal.” “And I,” said his companion, Risselman, “will carry her to Brussels, where I will burn her in the great square.” As he finished these words, he received a wound in the breast and fell dead; while another bullet shot off the nose of the other. When the “beggars” had been repulsed, his comrades jeeringly asked him if he would not like to go and look for his nose at Hal?

In memory of the defeat of these villains, a procession annually moved along the ramparts on the 10th of July. In the evening the people constructed little mounds in front of their dwellings and placed grotesque figures on them, which they called Mynheer Oliver Van de Tympel.

Our next incident is of an impertinent fellow somewhat like Zuick. This man came to Hal in 1624, on the day of the great procession, urged by curiosity rather than devotion. He was stationed at a citizen’s window, and when the miraculous image passed, he cried out jeeringly, “Ha! ha! here she comes, the little woman of Hal, who cannot walk; she is obliged to be carried.” As he said these words, the master of the house discharged his gun (as is customary on such occasions) in honour of the fêtes, when the barrel burst, and without hurting any one else, a part of the steel cut open the blasphemer’s mouth and so wounded his tongue, that he remained dumb from that time.

A citizen of Bruges, kept prisoner by the Turks at the end of Charles the Fifth’s expedition, was most cruelly treated and loaded with a chain weighing sixty pounds. One evening, while praying to the Blessed Virgin, he remarked that the prison door was left open, and throwing his chain over his shoulder and clearing the prison, found means of embarking, and reached his country safely. In gratitude to our Lady, he carried his chains in the great procession of Hal.

A good woman of Binche, on going to church on Easter Sunday, 1419, left her child in the cradle well wrapped up in several bandages (according to ancient custom of the peasants). An hour after a neighbour entering to get a light, the door not being locked, the poor woman being too poor to fear robbers, she perceived to her horror that the child was strangled in its cradle. Having great devotion to our Lady of Hal, she instantly vowed the child to her should she recover. She cut the band and the little innocent recovered. Men whose hearts are hardened by incredulity may doubt this; but, thank God! all hearts are not reduced to a state of ossification.

Many other children have been restored to life by our Lady of Hal. We will give the most celebrated instances mentioned by Justus Lipsius. Stephen Morel, of the town of Saint Hilary, near Cambray, had a son who died at birth and was buried without being baptized. Firmiana, his mother, was miserable at her child being deprived of Christian burial and the hope of heaven; she undertook a pilgrimage to Hal, and returned with the firm belief that her son was not dead. She caused his grave to be opened, when the body was discovered to be fresh and limp, although it had been several days under ground. A physician was called in, and the child carried to the church, where it showed undoubted signs of life. The good priest baptized and vowed him to the Blessed Virgin. But he died in an hour, and seemed to have received life only to admit of his being christened. It was then interred in sacred ground, and in her grief, the mother could console herself with the certainty of her child’s bliss.

Let the algebraist philosophers laugh at these records; we can laugh at them in return, and what is more, pray for them.

The great festival of our Lady of Hal is kept on the first Sunday in September. A grand procession takes place, which is joined by twelve of the most ancient confraternities of the neighbouring towns (who bring in rotation a new rich robe for our Lady’s image, which they have the privilege of carrying), and by many others of less celebrity.